Friday, December 17, 2010

Little Bee (Chris Cleave)

To be completely honest, I chose to read this book because of its cover. Seriously, the art is great and it’s got a nice glossy, textured finish. Also, the only insight you get from the back is that it’s a story about two women, and they don’t want to tell you what happens because the way it unfolds is apparently that good. They don’t want you to tell your friends what happens either, so they can find out for themselves. As this is my first review for the Genoshan, I’m not so sure we’re friends just yet. Are we? Well maybe we could be someday, and I think those back cover people have a point. Even though this wasn’t my favorite book, I still really enjoyed it so I’ll tell you enough to know that I did actually read it.


This book tells the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee trying to gain asylum in England, and Sarah, an English woman who once visited Nigeria, and the twisted way that their lives touched once, and then once again, and were never the same. Cleave alternates the perspective each chapter, unfolding the story once from one woman’s side and next from the other’s, creating gaps and then filling them in along the way. This lets the story unfold in a unique way, building an experience for the reader full of suspense and rich with insight into two very different characters’ lives.

Within the first two chapters, I was intrigued by the characters, moved by Cleave’s prose, and eager to find out more about how any facet of these two women’s lives could possibly be related. Little Bee starts out stuck in an detention center for immigrants, Sarah lives in the suburbs with her four-year-old son who is Batman and you better not say otherwise. Little Bee is released from the detention center and goes to find Sarah and her husband, Andrew. That’s when they’re all forced to confront a mysterious shared moment in their pasts, and things get - well, different. From the start, you can’t help but feel like you’re promised a big pay off. Both main characters constantly allude to this painful past event that will explain how everything is connected, but for most of the first half of the book, this lack of information makes the story seem like it’s just dragging on. At times it seemed as though there would never be a big reveal, or that the secret would not be nearly as shocking, scandalous, or intense as the hype. And in some ways it’s not, but there’s more. Yet just when I started to believe that this really was the worst book with the best beginning I’d ever read, it all got kicked up about eighteen notches and the second half of the book indeed delivered the payoff I had been expecting all along.


Story: 8 - A really unique story that manages to keep surprising you after you think that all of the surprising is done. It’s a well-done story of struggle told from two completely different angles, and Cleave manages to make sure that it never gets disjointed and everything has a purpose.

Style: 6.5 - I had a love/hate relationship with Cleave’s style in this book. Alternating the perspective each chapter did drive a sense of suspense throughout the story and I loved the extra dimension it brought to each character. At the same time, though, it contributed to about 100 pages of lagging plot. I also had some trouble getting the Nigerian speaking British English dialect, but I don’t necessarily fault the author for that since I’ve just never heard anyone speak like that before. At its best, though, the prose was incredibly cinematic. I felt like I could see Cleave’s descriptions as scenes in a movie, only to find after finishing the book that Little Bee is already in development as a feature film. I’d watch that.

General: 7.5 - Despite its shortcomings, I definitely loved Little Bee more than I hated it. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished reading it, and highly suspect that there are nuances in that first half that I missed because I was so skeptical that the ending would actually deliver. It took me about a week to get through the first half, but the second half I read in less than 24 hours. I’m not rushing to re-read it any time soon, but I do plan on it.

Overall: 7.33

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